Some years ago, I had an Israeli friend; a charmingly easygoing fellow. One day I exclaimed to him: “My goodness! The Israelis have bombed Syria!”
“Oh yeah”, he shrugged, nonchalantly.
“I’ve done that.”
It is easy to be dismissive of overseas conflicts when they seem so far away (my friend had the additional excuse of being desensitised due to his own experience as an army conscript, a requirement of all Israeli citizens). We can shield ourselves by skimming or ignoring the confronting headlines. We can focus exclusively on local news. Or we can choose to immerse ourselves in our comfortable day-to-day lives, ignoring the daily reality of people in other places. It’s very tempting, it prevents us from feeling distress and it doesn’t seem to hurt anyone.
The other day when we ran out of soap I dug around in the bathroom cupboard and found a big bar that I purchased over a year ago. It was from Syria, and as I used the soap I thought about the people that made it. Were they caught up in the war? Were they able to continue making soap?
I wasn’t wondering because it was important to me that I have this special foreign soap. Instead, I realised that I was enjoying a little luxury while the people who afforded it to me were probably suffering.
The square block of soap that got me thinking is called “Savon d’Alep” by the French who are its biggest exporters. I learned that it is named for the city of its origin: Aleppo, the largest city in Syria and one of the longest inhabited cities in the world. Soap itself may have been invented there.
The method of making this soap is unique to Aleppo, and it requires specialist workers who are familiar with the various techniques involved. Many of the factories are owned and run by families who have been making soap for generations.
Savon d’Alep contains a particular ratio of olive oil to laurel oil (Greek-made soap, which is similar, contains only olive oil). The ingredients are boiled in huge vats before being laid out on the factory floor, to be flattened by workers wearing planks strapped to their feet. I would love to see that in action! They roughly cut the soap into the characteristic cubes and stamp them with a makers’ mark. After many months of drying, the bars of soap are ready for distribution.
And what of the soapmakers now? They have indeed been impacted by the Syrian civil war. Much of Aleppo, including many historical sites, has been bombed to smithereens in the fighting that has occured there intensely since 2012. Even if factories have survived the bombing, manufacturers are unable to purchase supplies, workers are unable to travel to their jobs and shipping routes have become too dangerous. Soap manufacturers have joined the many who have abandoned their homes and places of work to flee from the ongoing violence.
The simple act of using some soap and thinking about its origins provoked me to put down the shield I was holding up against overseas conflict. I spent some time researching Syria, which I gather was once a beautiful place to visit (it features heavily in stylist, Sibella Court‘s book “Nomad” for example). I studied maps of the region, including the old one in my picture with very different borders to the modern version, which is in itself enlightening. I read articles about the reasons for the conflict. I felt grief for the thousands of innocent people who have died or continue to suffer in the deadly war, I hunted around the internet for ways to assist people in Syria.
And I savoured, with gratitude, my fat cube of Savon d’Alep soap.
For further information about the production of soap in Syria and how civil war has affected it, follow these links (keeping in mind that none of these are very recent articles, so presumably things are even worse now):
War Threatens Ancient Tradition on BBC News by Golda Arthur
Famous Aleppo Soap Victim of Syria’s Conflict on Your Middle East by Jean-Pierre Campagne, AFP
Modern Threat to Syria’s Ancient Aleppo Soap Industry on Reuters by Khaled Yacoub Oweis